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Going Classical? It's a lot more than just gas!

by David Henshall 20 Mar 2014 09:21 GMT 20 March 2014
The Bosham Classic Boat Revival © Jonathan Hoare /

Over the last quarter of a century, the UK has enjoyed almost unparalleled success in terms of Olympic sailing, yet during this same period of time, something of a worrying trend of declining support for what could best be described as 'grassroots' dinghy sailing has been observed.

At all levels of the sport, from National Championships down to weekly club racing, participation is under pressure from a wide range of alternative activities. Some might point the finger at the easier pleasures of the online world, whilst others may argue that the new generation of boats have fragmented the core club sailing activity. Both of these concerns are probably valid, yet it is more likely that the reasons for the change are far more numerous and complex. However, one clearly identifiable issue at the heart of the problem is the simply the demographics within the sport.

The massed ranks of sailors who drove the glory years of expansion within the sport during the 1970s and early 1980s are now thought of as the 'silver sailors' – a numerically large, often time rich, skilful sector that in the past have underpinned the UK dinghy sailing. Some of these sailors will have the income to head off into the big boat scene, but for many others, it is easy to see how they have become disenchanted with dinghy sailing and have drifted away. The skiff revolution and now foiling may have brought the sport a range of wonderful, exciting new boats that look fun, but for many sailors, this is just not how they want to spend their time afloat.

It is little wonder then that many of these sailors are re-discovering the joys of sailing within one of the few growing sectors in the sport, that of classic dinghy racing. It is not difficult to see the advantages of this interesting development, for it can tick so many boxes. For starters, many of the people who are now showing an interest in the classics have grow up with a love of the sport and actually care about the protection of the heritage that is otherwise being lost. In this respect, the classic dinghy scene is no different to any other activity that is prefixed by 'classic', with "this boat really ought to be saved" being an often-heard reprise. Then there is the nature of the boats themselves, many of which, despite their age, remain capable of delivering a great and highly enjoyable sailing 'experience'. The new boats of today may well be faster than their predecessors but this alone does not make the new boats better. Having lots of sail (or lots of sails, such as adding a spinnaker to a single hander) may be lots of fun for the fitter, committed sailor who can put in the hours of practice needed, but for those looking to enjoy the fun side of the sport, rather than just going fast, again it is the classics that seem to be offering the best solution.

Events too need to reflect the changing nature of the sailor (it is a wasted comment to say the 'nature of the sport', for the sailors ARE the sport). A significant percentage of classic sailors no longer want to spend from dawn till dusk thrashing up and down a windward-leeward course, only to come ashore and be ear-blasted by the inevitable disco. What is needed is a new approach to events and for those clubs blessed with the forward thinking to consider doing things differently, the rewards can be impressive.

Bosham Sailing Club, set on the upper reaches of Chichester Harbour, has shown just how fast the classic scene is developing. Bosham drew on the nearby Goodwood Classic Car Revival meeting for inspiration with their own 'Classic Dinghy Revival'. In the four years since its inception, the Bosham Classic Revival has become the benchmark of top-flight classic events. Well organised and attracting generous levels of sponsorship, the racing takes the fleet on a tour of the picturesque waters of Chichester Harbour, whilst ashore the competitors are well catered for and kept entertained! The success of the Bosham Revival Weekend is self evident, given the ever-growing entry list of beautifully restored boats that are testament to the rapidly evolving classics scene.

Nor is Bosham alone, as Wroxham on the Norfolk Broads has run a classics weekend for many years. Here too both the quality and quantity of boats entering is on the rise. Recent newcomers to the classic scene, Blithfield SC, look to be creating a similar standard of event in the Midlands, with a simple but effective weekend of good sailing and a relaxed time ashore. Even though it was their first year of hosting a classic event, Blithfield was able to attract a strong entry by offering an attractive package of an enjoyable experience both afloat and ashore. Rather than the Saturday night live music, they made sure the beer was cheap and flowing freely and then left the fleet to get on with enjoying themselves. With a number of the competitors either having just completed a restoration, or being in the throes of a rebuild, it was clear that many preferred the opportunity to sit down and compare thoughts, techniques and experiences that will no doubt further strengthen interest in getting old boats back into first class order.

The Classic and Vintage Racing Dinghy Association have had for a number of years a series of events at locations around the country, with these events being instrumental at seeing many otherwise 'lost' classes such as the Pegasus, Spearhead, Unit, Typhoon, Mercury and Marauder given an opportunity to sail with other boats of that era.

The changing nature of the classic events has also seen an expansion in the boats that are now being sought out for restoration. In the UK, the classic scene has its roots back in the development and restricted classes, with the Merlin Rockets very much leading the way. Not long after the hull forms had 'gone wide' the Merlin Rocket Class Committee were looking at ways to remain inclusive for the older, narrower boats. Having established the precedent, for more than 40 years now, the Merlins, as a class, have looked after the boats that development had rendered obsolete. It helps that on tricky and restricted waters, that a well rigged and equipped, nimble, fast tacking older boat can still compete with the wider, more powerful modern versions. Classic Merlin Rockets now have their own season long series of events around the country and with the 70th Anniversary of the class fast approaching, is hopeful of even more boats turning out. Certainly the Merlin Rockets are seeing more and more boats that would have otherwise been lost, now being saved. These get taken to workshops, before being subjected to high quality renovations that return the hulls to the pristine condition that the class was always famous for.

Now though, as more sailors look to join the classic movement, the one-design dinghies are joining the fun. The Concours prize at Bosham last year went to an Enterprise that had been cleverly restored to satisfy both the demands of performance, yet at the same time reflect the originality of the original boat. The winning Enterprise was sailing with a new suit of sails from Mike McNamara, who had followed the accepted practice from back in the 1950s of putting the sail numbers right up in the head of the sail. The Enterprise Class are now working to spread this success further as for the first time in their history, there will be generous prizes for the first 'old' boat at their Inland Championships this year.

Another fleet to be showing strong interest in developing a classic activity is the Solo, with at least one boat (with a 3 digit sail number) undergoing sympathetic restoration. When the boat reappears, it will have a new sail, cut in the manner of the sails from way back then, so this will no doubt be another contender for the 'best restoration' prize that many of the better events such as Bosham are offering. The work that has gone into both the Enterprise and Solo is being recognised by the increasing interest being noted by sailmakers who have retained the skills to make sails that are in keeping with the age of the boat. Mike Mac' has already made both the Enterprise and Merlin Rocket sails, whilst other lofts such as Batts and Banks are busy making sails that look the part yet are 'quick' (even by today's standards). Nor is it just the sailmakers who are picking up on the changing demands, as some of our best boatbuilders are now seeing a new interest in professional standard renovation work. At Chris Somner's Poole workshop, work is now in hand to restore a Seafly dinghy that will soon be back afloat and looking as good now as it would have done 35+ years ago.

Most of the work, including very detailed and highly skilled rebuilding, is done on the DIY basis, yet shows just how much untapped talent is available. One class that is now showing a real surge of interest is the International Moth, where old 'lowriders' are being restored as fast as they can be saved.

It is hoped that within the 'umbrella' of a number of the existing classic events, the lowriders will congregate at Hunts SC, Blithfield and Roadford where they will wobble, entertain but at the same time, provide a wonderful time line of Moth development. Yet the Moths also show another side to the classic scene, one that shows that in many ways the UK is still lagging behind other top sailing nations. For a number of years now the USA has enjoyed holding regular events for classic Moths (see that attract a great deal of publicity.

The strength of the US Classic Moth fleet can be judged from this short YouTube video shot at the 2010 Nationals:

Elsewhere in the USA, interest is strong and well funded for classes such as the Classic 14s and 505s. The latter boat also has a very active classic following just over the Channel in France, yet despite 2014 being the 60th Anniversary of this wonderful boat; it has yet to develop a classic following here in the land of its birth. 'Down under', the sailing scene in Australia is also moving to embrace the older classic boats, with their own brand of Classic regattas in the sun!

In the end, if there is a great example of the rights and wrongs of the classic scene, it has to be in the contrasting fortunes of two boats with great Olympic histories. The Finn class were early adopters of the 'classic fleet' ethos that has seen interest in the preservation and sailing of their old boats taking place almost everywhere that Finns are sailed (which is pretty much everywhere!). This is in stark contrast to the stately Flying Dutchman, a class that when offered the chance, seemed to want to hold the idea of a 'classic division' at arms length. The result? In the UK, the Classic Finns abound, whilst the FD fleet (many of which would qualify for classic status) are increasingly left out in the cold.

If there is one factor that describes the attractions of the classic scene, it is that this has become a route to rediscovering the 'fun' side of dinghy racing in a relaxed, enjoyable environment. Yet it would be wrong to think that everything is rosy, for already issues such as handicapping and unscrupulous helms exploiting the loopholes in rules from yesteryear could yet spoil the scene. Elsewhere, much of classic yacht racing has been tainted by the spectre of a 'cheque book' approach to boats that scarcely conform to the 'spirit of the rules'. It would be a great shame if the classic dinghy scene were to follow this route, with newly constructed dinghies appearing at classic events that claim their status through the inclusion of a single deck beam from an old boat.

For now though, 2014 looks to be the best year yet for the Classics; more quality events, spread further around the country, which will attract the growing number of newly restored boats back afloat. For the final factor in the Classic Scene is that many of the boats being re-launched today are worthy of a place in a Museum, yet are back where they belong – out on the race course!

In the next article, the focus will be on handicapping older boats and on some of the latest crop of Concours class restorations that are taking place around the country.

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